The Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island, an "ancient" tribe
July 11, 2013 8:42 AM   Subscribe

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a string of 572 islands that run roughly north-south in the Bay of Bengal between Myanmar and Indonesia, but are formally a part of the Republic of India. Of the hundreds of islands, less than 40 are inhabited. While you can travel and visit some of the islands, but as of 2005, there are also a few that India has declared closed to outsiders to preserve these distinct cultures, living much as they have for hundreds to thousands of years, remaining distant from all outsiders. The most extreme example are the Sentinelese people who live on North Sentinel Island (Google maps).
The small tribe on North Sentinel Island continues to resist all contact with the outside world — just as they have for the past 60,000 years. They drive off fishermen, journalists, anthropologists and government officials with their spears and arrows. Their low-lying island, heavily forested and protected by a barrier of coral reefs, is roughly the size of Manhattan.
The exact lineage of the Sentinelese people is unclear, but complete mitochondrial DNA sequences from Onges and Great Andaman populations (abstract, with comments) suggests that these populations "survived in genetic isolation since the initial settlement of the islands during an out-of-Africa migration by anatomically modern humans." Linguistically and physically, the populations on the different islands have been separated long enough to have distinct languages and genetics. "The epigenetic data suggest that the Andaman Islanders originated from either two colonization events or a single founding population that has been subdivided for an extended length of time. " Given the Sentinelese people's disinterest in outsiders and their apparent early technologies, it is assumed they are similarly ancient in lineage.

As these populations are not terribly remote, there have been efforts to study these people and their cultures for centuries. Still, there is no recording of Sentinelese people's spoken language, and observations have been limited to the few encounters, intentional or otherwise, that the Sentinelese have permitted. One of those unintentional encounters happened in 1981, when the Primrose, a Hong Kong freighter, ran aground on a submerged coral reef in the Bay of Bengal. The crew stayed on their boat for a few days, when they saw native people, advancing toward their ship, and armed with spears, bow and arrows, and other primitive weapons. The captain sent a distress call via radio, and the crew were air-lifted to safety by helicopter. The crew included Captain Robert Fore, who shared his story and images of the rescue.

You can read a ton more about the Andaman and Nicobar islands on the archived pages of Lonely Islands, and there a few videos on Andaman Videos.
posted by filthy light thief (39 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
And I know what I'll be reading tonight, thanks! Isolated people fascinate me.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:54 AM on July 11, 2013


If that's the case, here's Uncontacted Tribes, a rough guide to the peoples of the world who wish to remain apart from the modern world. There's a page on the Sentinelese people, which opens with an image of a lone man aiming a bow and arrow towards the aerial camera person, with the caption: The photo that told the world the Sentinelese had survived the 2004 tsunami.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:07 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really kind of love the Sentinelese. I mean, sure, in some theoretical sense you can frame it as a tragedy; people limited from all the possibilities of what they could be, children growing up more cloistered than even the worst religious subcultures in the rest of the world. And given the low lying nature of the island, global warming may meant that a culture lives and dies and takes all knowledge of their lives with them to the grave.

But given what the actual result has been for the other Andamanese, i.e., dying or becoming degraded remnants for tourists to make dance, I say go Sentinelese. And you wonder what legends they have that make them so fierce, so determined to fend off all the world. What do they think of us? What stories do they tell by the fire? Are they the only real people in all the world, surrounded by monsters that sometimes come from the sea?
posted by tavella at 9:07 AM on July 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


The other day I was reading an article about Boa Sr.. She was an Andaman Village elder (obviously, not Sentinalese), and was the last of her tribe to remember any of their native language, Bo. There are now only 52 other members of her tribe left, and none of them know the language anymore.

I am always fascinated by the Sentinalese, and I'm glad that India actually has policies to at least respect their rights to privacy. There's no doubt that if we had continued with our previous policies of exploitation and extermination that we could easily take over their land and culture, but thankfully this is one case where we really do respect their right to exist in their way.

One of the very few uncontacted tribes in the world?

Wikipedia page on Uncontacted Peoples. Fascinating stuff. Wonderful FPP :)
posted by symbioid at 9:08 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


First thought that comes to mind: I wonder how shallow their gene pool is.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:16 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]




The Sentinelese are a subject that's fascinated me for years. Somewhere on the web there's a great article where the author travels to Port Blair and (illegally) hires a boat to take him around the island where he sees some of the Sentinelese on the beach.

I don't remember where it was, I'm sure someone else is going to post it before I can find it..

In any case the Sentinelese are doing exactly what they should be doing, as contact with the outside world would surely mean the destruction of their culture.
posted by smoothvirus at 9:34 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]




The famous coconut video.
posted by stbalbach at 10:13 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Prime Directive applies here, right?
posted by pibeandres at 10:14 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


you can frame it as a tragedy; people limited from all the possibilities of what they could be

While I recognize that you personally are not advocating this position, I still have to say that I'm always blown away by this take which is very sincerely advocated by many -- as if by being brought into the wider world they'd magically become middle class with access to education and opportunity. When in fact "contacted" people are usually exploited in pretty horrible ways. Generally, uncontacted people are the tiny, lucky remnant who were given the luxury of choice -- though of course it is possible that as few as one authority figure within that culture may be making the decision for everyone.

There are 7 billion or so people who have supposed access to the global socioeconomic system, and life is utter, utter shit for easily half of them. By contrast, hunter-gatherer cultures have a lot to recommend them. I'm not idealizing hunter-gatherer cultures, but it's insane to idealize the alternative. Life for the world's poor within our system can be and very typically is absolutely appalling.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:33 AM on July 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


"The Prime Directive applies here, right?"

According to the links, there have been a number of attempted contacts since at least the end of the 19th century, but more often than not they end with the Sentinelese attacking the outsiders. And with good reason (from their perspective), since some of the contacts aren't friendly. A link on the nytimes blog mentions a small war they fought with salvagers in the late 80s to early 90s, that resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of Sentinelese. They have no way of knowing if outsiders are going to be friendly or murderous.

A fascinating story.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:39 AM on July 11, 2013


as if by being brought into the wider world they'd magically become middle class with access to education and opportunity.
I'm sure the complete lack of modern healthcare is going really well for them.

Honestly, I don't understand the opposite - there is no reason to for "the prime directive" to apply to a small island, that island isn't going to develop into an independent modern society, there aren't enough people for that to happen.

I certainly understand the concern about exploitation, but these people should have the choice to join the rest of the human family, as opposed to "preserving" them as if they were animals on a nature reserve.
posted by delmoi at 10:52 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Two heavily used air routes (P628 and L510) linking Singapore with India and Europe pass within 15 miles of North Sentinel Island, appearing quite high in the sky there. The ICAO numbers show these corridiors have about 40-50 flights per day. It does make you wonder what the people there think when they see the regular streams of contrails overhead, and rafts of blinking lights in the sky at night. With that being the main indicator of outside presence, it must be a little ominous, like looking at UFOs. It's also interesting to contrast that with the lifestyles of the people 6 miles overhead, businessmen finishing up wine, people on their iPods, etc.
posted by crapmatic at 10:55 AM on July 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I certainly understand the concern about exploitation, but these people should have the choice to join the rest of the human family, as opposed to "preserving" them as if they were animals on a nature reserve.

The Sentinelese have been given that choice and it's not a conversation they appear interested in having.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:01 AM on July 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


I certainly understand the concern about exploitation, but these people should have the choice to join the rest of the human family, as opposed to "preserving" them as if they were animals on a nature reserve.

I might appreciate this view more if we lived in a fair or reasonable world. We do not. And we really don't know what they would prefer if we were somehow able to give them a set of options from which they could choose. I think it's likely they would choose to stay, the island unmolested by outsiders. I could see some trade being welcome, but once you open the door you can't close it.
posted by Glinn at 11:01 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Two poachers lie in shallow graves beside the Indian Ocean after they trespassed on an endangered tribe's island. Now even relatives of the victims' want the killers left alone.

They're pretty good at preserving themselves. The bigger concern is disease, which they can't keep out with spears and arrows.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:04 AM on July 11, 2013


In a rapidly shrinking world, they'll last until some odious moneyed prick decides there might be something valuable on their island.
posted by umberto at 11:05 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some of the people in that article about the dead poachers are ridiculous. How do they really think a murder prosecution is going to work here?
We want the bodies to be retrieved and the police to arrest the murderers.
Honestly it seems ridiculous to think that the police should have any legal jurisdiction to take such an action. India claims the island is theirs, but that's pretty obviously not the case. These are not Indian citizens acting on Indian land; they are their own and the island is theirs. 'Arrest' is not a possible action, it's a category error.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:19 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad that India actually has policies to at least respect their rights to privacy

Considering India's ongoing colonial legacy of settlement in the rest of the island chain, this is quite literally the least they could possibly do.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:20 AM on July 11, 2013


North Sentinel Island is only about 20 miles away from the main settlement at Port Blair, that's certainly within range of the Sentinelese canoes. They could send an emmissary if they wanted to. I think it's pretty clear their only wish is to be left alone.
posted by smoothvirus at 11:20 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


these people should have the choice to join the rest of the human family

They are already in the human family. Joining a socioeconomic system that would reduce them to ragpicking indigents (without, I might add, this health care you refer to and seem to think everyone has) if their experience is typical, or wards of the state with free government services as long as a capricious foreign legislature cares to indulge them if they're lucky.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:23 AM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


These natives are missing out on the fun of organized religions
posted by Renoroc at 11:31 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


In a rapidly shrinking world, they'll last until some odious moneyed prick decides there might be something valuable on their island.

This still goes on with the last remaining culturally intact indigenous peoples in the world. The Yanomani are, relatively speaking, a success story compared with all the millions either exterminated or "integrated" at the very bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid... where integration consists of their children having to to go to the cities and live in vast open sewers. At the current rate, we'll learn to coexist with other cultures right about the time we extinguish the last of them.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:36 AM on July 11, 2013


North Sentinel Island is only about 20 miles away from the main settlement at Port Blair, that's certainly within range of the Sentinelese canoes. They could send an emmissary if they wanted to. I think it's pretty clear their only wish is to be left alone.

Just wanted to point out it was mentioned in one of the articles that the Sentinelese have not developed oars, only poles, so their dugouts cannot go past the coral reefs around their island or past where the water is so deep that their poles can't touch the ocean floor. I agree they clearly want to be left alone, not trying to argue with your main point.
posted by Falconetti at 11:50 AM on July 11, 2013


I definitely don't want to over-romanticize -- given their extreme resource limitations and isolation and the observations that suggested that at any time half the women were either visibly pregnant or carrying an infant, they likely have very high child death rates or (what would look to moderns) brutal methods of population control. Or both. And I can't imagine that they didn't struggle badly after the Boxing Day earthquake/tsunami destroyed most of their fishing lagoons. But given that they appear to have a viable, healthy culture, and in fact may have a larger surviving population than all the rest of the Andamanese tribes put together, it seems like they are making the right choice.
posted by tavella at 12:25 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Even if you have no romantic notions about their way of life, there remains the simple problem that we do not know how to establish a safe first contact with these people. We don't know how to establish ourselves as friendly, to their satisfaction. And we're still not good at preventing uncontacted people from catching our germs.

These Indians, the Cofans (cofan.org) are well and truly contacted. They gots the internets. You still need a clean bill of health before they'll allow you to come near them. They really don't want to deal with the seasonal flu.
posted by ocschwar at 12:52 PM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Based on that coconut video, I would not be surprised if there is contact made a few times every year by various rich travelers looking for something unique, curious locals, amateur explorers and whatever else. They would need a full-time ship with guards and radar to protect it and India isn't that wealthy.
posted by stbalbach at 1:23 PM on July 11, 2013


Those travelers would have to go to port somewhere, and they won't go unnoticed if they pull in at Port Blair.
posted by ocschwar at 1:32 PM on July 11, 2013


The Sentinelese are in a different class than most uncontacted tribes, though. Most "uncontacted" are in fact in contact with their neighboring tribes, they just haven't been formally in communication with Westerners. The Sentinelese are genuinely isolated for at least the last century, and possibly before that. It seems likely that they occasionally had contact with other tribes in the Andamans -- the Onge at least had the seafaring skills to make it there -- but the only Sentinelese to ever speak to Westerners (if only to presumably say "why did you kidnap us?) apparently had an different language from the other Andaman groups and they didn't keep the idea of the oar, so they may very well have been long separate even before the 19th century.
posted by tavella at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2013


What do they think of us?
What stories do they tell by the fire?
The probably talk of a trickster devil called the Investment Banker, and that keeps everyone happy at home.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:30 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I certainly understand the concern about exploitation, but these people should have the choice to join the rest of the human family, as opposed to "preserving" them as if they were animals on a nature reserve.

What family would they be joining?

I don’t know that it’s over romanticizing, but these people are living life. What more is there? What the fuck do we have that is so great? iPhones? I don’t think anything I’m doing with my life is any more important or meaningful than theirs.

I don’t think anyone knows what their life expectancy or health is like, or that they would have a net gain from more access to health care assuming they could even get it, but that would just numbers anyway. It’s hard to quantify quality of life.
posted by bongo_x at 8:32 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the complete lack of modern healthcare is going really well for them.

Modern healthcare or no, contacting the Sentinelese would be a catastrophic health disaster for them. Look at the ones kidnapped to Port Blair in the 19th century - they started getting sick and dying immediately. The ones that survived that would have to deal with the epidemic of metabolic diseases that tend to follow the introduction of hunter-gatherers to industrial diets.

The most likely outcome is we'd kill almost all of them, exactly as has happened to the rest of the indigenous Andamanese, whose population is now a one seventh of what it was before they were contacted, and eventually destroy their language and culture. Maybe at some point in the future we'll figure out how to contact them without doing that, but until we're pretty damn certain we have it down, the most ethical thing to do is to honor their evident wishes and leave them the hell alone.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:37 PM on July 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don’t know that it’s over romanticizing, but these people are living life. What more is there? What the fuck do we have that is so great? iPhones? I don’t think anything I’m doing with my life is any more important or meaningful than theirs.

That's for them to choose once it's feasible to give them an informed choice. Right now, they are not rejecting contact with US. They are rejecting contact with their image of us, an image formed by centuries of being subjected to Burmese/Javanese slave raids. We don't know how to establish peaceful and safe contact, so we have to leave them be. But when and if that changes, it will not be the time to romanticize these people as noble savages. Contact will become the right thing to do.
posted by ocschwar at 7:45 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


We don't actually know that, about the slave raids; the island is essentially unapproachable by sea 10 months of the year and apparently difficult even with powered boats the other two. And they've certainly had a chance to have a better impression, as the Indians spent decades making visits with gifts. The Sentinelese apparently eventually decided they weren't threats, enough to take the gifts and even go out to the boats -- but the moment anyone tried to set foot on the island, or even outstay their welcome in the lagoon, the warriors they held in reserve in the forest would turn up to enforce their message. They really, really don't want to talk to us, and there's a point where you have to let people alone, even if you are convinced that they would be better off with the opportunities of the modern world.

And they are very impressive in their own way. The island is *tiny* --it's basically a chunk of land five by five miles. You could walk across it in half a morning. Yet they have managed to live in such perfect balance in it for hundreds, possibly thousands of years that it is a forested, park like paradise, with fishing so rich that poachers will risk both the law and the arrows to fish illegally there. And this isn't romanticism of the native -- there are plenty of stone age peoples who devastate their environment, or that maintained themselves only by staying on the move so that what they had stripped could recover. Easter Island is twice the size, and it ended up with no trees at all by the time its isolated inhabitants were done.

And it's not because they are rigid, either -- when bits of metal started turning up on their shores from wrecks, they became dab hands at cold-smithing. When the tsunami utterly changed their island, erasing nearly all their fishing lagoons, they apparently adapted just fine, being quite vigorous enough to defend their islands against some unfortunate poachers in 2006. I cannot help but admire a people so tenacious, flexible, and self-assured.
posted by tavella at 10:21 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Easter Island is twice the size, and it ended up with no trees at all by the time its isolated inhabitants were done.

Not to dispute your point, but I think it's just about settled that the Easter Islanders got a bum rap. As seemingly ever, rats introduced by sailing vessels appear to have been the culprit: with little else for them to eat they devoured the seeds and prevented new trees from growing to replace any that were cut down. Or so I've read.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:28 AM on July 12, 2013


The Polynesian rat that the inhabitants brought with them tended to eat the palm seeds and prevent natural regrowth, but it was the inhabitants themselves that cut down the trees, long before the first Westerners arrived. Those brought their own devastation, of course, in the form of disease and slavers, but Easter Island was already stripped of trees by the time they came.
posted by tavella at 11:35 AM on July 12, 2013


Ah, thanks. I remembered the rat part, and filled in the rest from other tales, rather like the way one reconstitutes Richard Attenborough using frog DNA.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:42 AM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


If they've really been there for 60 000 years, it's a stunning achievement. All that history... Ice ages, the rise of civilization, world wars, has had no effect on them whatsoever. Whatever culture the Sentinelese have may be the oldest continually maintained tradition in existence.

They've lived there long enough for some adaptation to have occurred, but they seem to look the same as other modern humans. (Unlike homo floresiensis, say.) And that island... over tens of millennia it must have adapted to them as much as they adapted to it, and so far as we can see everything seems to be okay. Nature and man worked out a compromise on North Sentinel Island that allows for long term coexistence like nowhere else on Earth.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:27 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


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